Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2014: Report Stage (Resumed)

Debate resumed on amendment No. 44:
In page 72, after line 31, to insert the following:
"Provision of housing units
59. In the provision of housing units, a local authority shall give priority to persons that have been responsible tenants in leased accommodation under the Rental Accommodation Scheme.".

The amendments deal with an issue that is at the centre of the controversy surrounding the Bill and what it means for people on the housing waiting list. As I indicated in conversation with Deputy Dessie Ellis just before this debate started, while the thrust of what he is trying to do with the amendment is right, in that it deals with an issue that is central to the Bill and addresses a significant problem that will develop if the Government presses ahead with the Bill, as constituted, I do not agree with how it is phrased. I will explain why I believe there is a slight problem with its phrasing.

The amendment points to a critical issue with the rental accommodation scheme, RAS. During the controversy of the past week or two surrounding the Bill and the claims and counter-claims about what it means, the RAS has come to the centre. Last week the Minister of State claimed that the housing assistance payment, HAP, scheme was really just the RAS expanded.

Others did. Mr. Simon Brooke of Clúid stated it on radio the other day. He made the point - there has been a suggestion by the Minister of State to this effect - that we had not kicked up about this issue when the RAS was first introduced. The implication is that we are making a mountain out of a molehill and that, despite what we claim, there are no problems with the Bill. However, that is not true. In June 2011 some of us flagged the major problem with the RAS and the Government's proposals, which have found their way into this legislation. The issues have been raised in the Dáil repeatedly since. I looked back through a few statements I published at the time. In June 2011 I referred to how all new entrants to the RAS would be considered to be adequately housed and would no longer be eligible to be on housing waiting lists. I stated this was unbelievable, representing a counter-revolution in the State's approach to providing housing for low-income families and households, and that the hopes of tens of thousands of young families were to be devastated because their long wait of seven, eight or nine years for a council house - this period has since extended to 15 years - had come to nothing. They would never have a home that they could call their own and would become subject to private developers, speculators and banks, many of which had helped to bankrupt the country. I made this statement on foot of a major problem that had emerged with the RAS. The original entrants were told that they would participate in the scheme for four years, after which they would be given a council house. In June 2011 they were suddenly told that this was not the case and that they would be deemed to be housed under the RAS. There was uproar.

We held a press conference in Buswell's Hotel with representatives of Tenants First and some of the affected families in my area. The media were befuddled trying to figure out the problem because they did not understand how housing waiting lists worked. They have taken four years to catch up. At the press conference we pointed out that this was the beginning of striking tens of thousands of families off housing waiting lists. On foot of this outrage, the 400 people in question were told that, while they would be placed on a fixed transfer list, everyone who entered the RAS after that date would be deemed to be housed. That is, of course, what happened. Anyone who joined the RAS afterwards was taken off the list.

There are now thousands of people on the RAS. A few hundred are entitled to be on a transfer list because this concession was forced from the Government and local authorities at the time but the vast majority of people on the RAS have been taken off the list and are deemed housed. This Bill expands this to take everyone off the list. News of this is starting to filter out now but most people will only find out when they are forced onto the housing assistance payment, HAP, scheme. When they discover that their wait of ten to 15 years has come to nothing it will cause despair and outrage. They will learn that after all that time they will not get a council house but will be deemed to be housed in private rented accommodation. The councils will then be able to say they discharged their obligation to those people.

In response to these points the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, has said people can go on a transfer list. The RAS experience is clear. If a transfer list exists, and there are many local authorities that do not have one, one can only get on it if there are chronic overcrowding problems, medical needs, acute anti-social difficulties and so on. Only people suffering such problems will be accepted in their application to go on a transfer list. Even these people will have to wait months and sometimes years. The Minister of State suggests that people who do not have the acute problems outlined, who have merely spent a long time waiting, will somehow have a right to a council house but this is preposterous. We cannot even house the people in the most dire and chronic need.

Housing departments will face the most impossible and diabolical choices as to who should be allocated the tiny number of houses that are available. I will give the example of an elderly man I am dealing with at the moment. He has had two strokes, he has brain damage, his memory is gone and he has serious speech difficulties as a result of the strokes. He has just been released from the National Rehabilitation Hospital. He is diabetic, needs two shots per day and must eat carefully to allow for those shots. Due to his memory problems the fear is he may not take his shots and if he does not do so he could die. He was released and put in emergency housing in Dún Laoghaire that is overwhelmingly populated by people with chronic drug or alcohol problems. When he arrived with his family and saw where he had to stay he was stricken with fear. On seeing his reaction his family worried he might keel over and have another stroke but the council said there was nowhere else for him to go. He is still staying in that emergency housing. If he dies as a result of the anxiety induced by being placed in completely inappropriate hostel accommodation it will be on the heads of this Government and the housing authorities. It is not the council's fault because they have no other accommodation for him. The people who run the emergency housing in question admit the facility is not set up for such a case. They argue that they are not doctors but rather deal with people with chronic alcohol and drug problems. They say they are not in a position to look after this man but will do their best. They say the emergency housing is not appropriate. Similarly, the hospital has discharged him because the bed is needed. His life is in danger.

Given what is proposed under the HAP scheme, how will a housing authority allocate houses to people who have been on the list for ten or 12 years? The Minister of State says such people are entitled to a transfer. To whom will the authority allocate a house, the man who may die because he is in inappropriate hostel accommodation or the family that has waited on the list for 15 years? That family's need may not be as pressing an emergency but its claim on a council house is very legitimate. Where stands the list for these people? What of transfer priority or any priority? The man I refer to cannot be housed. I was told by the local authority yesterday it could be weeks or months before he is housed. How will a person on the list get a transfer in this situation? It will not happen. Housing officials will face appalling choices on who will get a house as every possible choice will cause someone else to suffer. Only those in desperate need will be considered a priority. This is going to be a disaster. Even those at death's door cannot be guaranteed housing.

What the Minister of State proposes will not work. Housing departments are overrun already and I imagine officials feel sick with anxiety at what is going on and the situation in which the Government is putting them. The Minister of State must admit the truth and say this is not a permanent solution to people's housing issues. The RAS has not worked and placing a so-called obligation on local authorities to house people through the HAP scheme, which is an expanded version of RAS, gives people no chance of getting a council house. These people with housing needs will be thrown to the sharks, private landlords and developers. Only a trickle of people in the most dire circumstances may be housed.

Until last Tuesday nobody on the council housing list knew the gravity of what is contained in this Bill. Section 37 is the most damaging section and is the cause of most complaint for us, including people on the housing list. It amounts to one sentence that is written ambiguously and designed to hide the gravity of what is intended.

Until last Thursday the Minister of State was hesitant and denied that people who go on the new HAP scheme would be removed from the housing list. Deputy Eoghan Murphy, from the Minister of State's council area in Limerick, exposed the lie by uncovering the following quote from a document raised at the meeting of the Joint Committee on Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht of 7 May:

The intention behind the formal scheme is that once households are supported by HAP they will be considered to have their housing needs met and will be removed from the housing waiting list. This is a fundamental change to overall housing policy where those in receipt of long-term rent supplement support remain on local authority waiting lists.

This could not be clearer and dates from May, prior to my election to this House. Yet in the past two weeks the Minister of State has come before this House and denied what has been outlined. The document goes on to say that 50,000 people of the 80,000 currently on rent supplement will migrate to HAP. It says "as they transfer to HAP waiting lists will be reduced by 50,000". This is very convenient.

All of this has nothing to do with ending poverty traps or helping working people. A homeless family that works pointed out to me that there is nothing in this Bill to help them because they are not on rent supplement. The truth has been exposed by others and the Minister of State knew it all along. We now know the truth and it runs contrary to what has been stated in the past week or two.

The Minister of State should withdraw this Bill and bring forward the statutory instrument about which she has been speaking for consideration by the House. In fairness to people, this matter should be addressed in the Bill.

It is disgraceful that this fundamental legislation which will affect 100,000 families on the housing waiting list is receiving so little attention from the media. Them seem only to appear in the House to cover Leaders' Questions.

But for the press conference held last Tuesday at 11 a.m. by the Housing Action Group, which was attended by the media, I would wager that nobody would be aware of what is contained in this Bill. People's lives will be seriously affected by the provisions of this Bill yet most people are completely unaware of it.

This Bill seeks to wipe out housing wait lists and privatise housing, which will result in people being placed in insecure situations with no prospect of security. I spoke at a meeting last week on the northside of Dublin. A number of people who had only heard that day through the media about this legislation turned up at that meeting very distressed. One of them told me that she had been on the housing list for the past 11 years and would go homeless rather than participate in the housing assistance payment scheme. My question to the Minister of State is what will she do if people refuse to participate in this inferior scheme because they will lose the many years they spent on housing waiting lists, which we all know do not really exist but meant that people at least had some prospect of getting a house whenever the Government got around to building some. What will happen to those people who refuse to participate in the HAP scheme?

I would also like to know who, under the HAP scheme, will be responsible for fixing the boiler, gate and so on, which work up to now has been the responsibility of the council. I have been asked by council workers to inquire of the Minister of State who will operate this scheme. Will work in this regard be outsourced, which in my view appears to be clearly on the agenda? I can foresee the use of cheap labour to oversee the operation of this scheme. Those involved will be acting as estate agents rather than dealing with people's housing needs.

Many serious questions arise in relation to RAS. I have been asked by people what will happen to the RAS scheme. Why is it stated in the proposal in respect of housing supply that 2,500 houses will be RAS properties? What is the point in RAS continuing when the new scheme comes into force? What will be the difference between the two scheme? Many people were opposed to the introduction of RAS. I was a member of a council at that time and I opposed its introduction. So much for the housing agencies defending council tenants.

Another aspect of the Bill to which little attention has been drawn is that of rent arrears deductions. There is no other group in society that can have rent or mortgage payments taken from their income. For example, the 100,000 people in mortgage arrears, for reasons which we all understand, are able to choose between buying food or paying their mortgage. Under this legislation council tenants will not be able to decide what bills and so on they can pay. Council tenants have been more under the cosh in the past six years than any other group yet this fundamental right is to be taken away from them. Members and former Members of this House have had their debts written down by the banks. Some have gone into bankruptcy. We all know that anybody can get into arrears, including the illustrious capitalist Denis O'Brien, who secured a write-off of €300,000.

All-in-all, it has now become clear what exactly is contained in this Bill. It is a sleight of hand to try to wipe out the nuisance of the housing waiting lists and to put people into insecure situations. It is incredible that unlike in the past people will not in future have the right to a permanent home in an area in which they can send their children to school - council houses are great, as are the areas in which they are located: the one I lived in was great - but will instead be shoved into the arms of private landlords.

I explained on Committee Stage that these amendments duplicate a power already provided through the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2009 to housing authorities and the Minister. Section 22 of that Act provides that a housing authority can determine the order of priority in which it makes allocations to individual households in accordance with its allocation scheme. Subsection (5) allows the housing authority, having regard to any regulations made by the Minister in that regard, to reserve dwellings available for allocation in its area, in respect of particular classes of household, forms of tenure or households transferring from other forms of social housing support. The making of an allocation scheme is a reserved function of the authority. In providing for specific allocations and prioritising for same it is important to have regard to those in greatest need and in respect of vulnerable groups but also to avoid measures that would have unintended consequences for the different categories of need.

Section 22(16) provides that the Minister may direct a housing authority to amend an allocation scheme in the manner specified by him or her and that the housing authority must comply with that direction. If I believe there is a robust case for the prioritisation of any particular class of household above another in the context of the allocation of social housing support by a housing authority I will use the power given to me under section 22(16). However, I do not believe that is appropriate in the two particular cases provided for in these amendments, namely, that people on RAS who have been responsible be given priority over the type of person referred to by Deputy Boyd Barrett or tenants in relation to unaffordable rent levels because people in RAS are on differential rent. I do not get the point about unaffordable rent levels. Obviously, people who are evicted are a priority because they are homeless. That is the position in relation to the specific amendments.

I would like to address some of the broader issues raised. I did not ask Deputies why they had not raised the issue in relation to RAS before now rather what I said was that the matter had not been raised during the Second Stage debate. It has been suggested that not all councils have transfer lists. Deputy Catherine Murphy said that no such list exists in Kildare County Council. Under section 22(3) of the 2009 Act, all councils are required to have a transfer policy. As with all social housing tenants and, as will be the case with HAP recipients, HAP households who wish to do so will be able to access other local authority housing options through the transfer system. I have always said that people will be able to transfer. I have not said they will remain on the waiting list but that they will be able to transfer into local authority housing, whereby they can apply to transfer from HAP to local authority housing or approved housing body, AHB, housing.

As I said previously in discussions on amendment No. 19, I am proposing that a robust transfer policy, which would afford HAP recipients and other social housing tenants equal opportunities to access other forms of social housing support, including incremental purchase schemes, will be a central part of a local authority's allocation policy going forward. This will be done under provisions already in place under section 22 of the 2009 Act. This list, while being a transfer list, will reflect the specific priority of the previous position held by a household on the main waiting list within the authority area in which they are resident. The principle will be that the reasonable expectations of households should be preserved. They will, therefore, be placed on a transfer list with no less favourable terms than if they had remained on the main housing waiting list. I hope that is clear because I know Deputies are seeking clarity.

So they keep their time?

That is not what the Minister of State's officials are saying.

People will retain their priority and will be placed on a transfer list. The reason they will be on the transfer list is because they will be in receipt of social housing support through the local authority system.

Where in the legislation is that written down?

I have just read it out but I can give it to the Deputy in writing if she so wishes.

Will it be provided for in law or by way of statutory instrument?

I will provide for it by way of regulation.

It is clear the Minister of State does not propose to accept any of the amendments proposed. It is a sad day for all of us in this House when a series of well-intentioned, well-constructed, reasonable amendments are tabled and a Minister or Minister of State fails to accept any of them. The Minister of State would have us believe that she has provided in the legislation that those in receipt of the HAP payment will be taken of the housing waiting list but can go on a transfer list.

The problem is that the legislation the Minister of State has put before us provides for people to be taken off the list but provides no legislative framework for them to be put on a list. The Minister of State says there is a requirement for a local authority to have a policy. We have a policy in Kildare, namely that there will be no transfer. Therefore, what the Minister of State is saying to us makes absolutely no sense.

Let me address very briefly the circumstances of a person under the RAS by comparison with those of a homeless person, as alluded to by other Deputies. If a casual vacancy or new house arises or the local authority is lucky enough to get a property from NAMA, it creates a vacancy. We are simply saying people who have had five years occupancy under RAS should progress out of the RAS unit and that the person who is homeless should come in behind them into the RAS unit. Therefore, there would be a degree of progression that would allow what I propose regarding tenants who demonstrate suitability in respect of the sort of community building to which we are all committed. Sadly, the Minister of State appears not to be committed in that respect.

There is a contradiction in what the Minister of State just said. On the one hand, she says a person such as the one I described would have to take priority but, on the other, she is saying people in the HAPS can apply for a transfer and, based on the number of years waiting, can have a reasonable expectation that the position in respect of those years of waiting will somehow be preserved.

If they are still on rent supplement-----

How can those two things be true at the same time?

The current situation-----

This is the point. In Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, for example, which I am sure is much the same as anywhere else, there will be two houses allocated this month, if we are lucky. There are already approximately 25 people on the priority list in dire circumstances. Their cases are similar to those I have just described. Therefore, the only choice available to the local authority is to house the people in absolutely diabolical circumstances. Effectively, therefore, the list is gone already. The Minister of State is saying that under the HAPS, their time waiting will still be taken into consideration and the reasonable expectation can still be delivered on, but it cannot be because there will be only two houses. Will the Minister of State say-----

There were 275 last year in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown.

Is the Minister of State saying that, of the two houses that will be allocated, one will be allocated to the person in absolutely dire circumstances while the other will be allocated to people on the basis of their time waiting?

There will be a lot more.

That will not happen and cannot happen. If we are lucky, there are two houses allocated per month. Consider the case if there were five-----

There were 275 last year in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown.

What the Minister of State is saying is just not serious. She bandies about figures on RAS houses and refers to allocations of 5,000 and NAMA. The Taoiseach said today that NAMA offered 4,000 houses. Although a figure of 4,000 has been bandied about for three or four years, only 300 have been delivered nationally. Therefore, what has been said is just rubbish.

Let me outline why this proposal will make circumstances even worse than those associated with the rent allowance. With the rent allowance, a landlord must sign up for a period of a year.

They do not have to sign up.

Under the new scheme, he will have to sign up to a more long-term arrangement. This will mean even more landlords will run away from rent support schemes with the councils. Therefore, by introducing the proposed measure, the Government will exacerbate an already dire set of circumstances in which landlords are not interested in rent allowance or rent support.

They do not have to sign up for that long.

They will have to sign something.

They do not have to sign up for longer than a year.

Then there will be only one-year leases.

Or longer; whichever.

I will not speak for too long because I have already expressed my opinion on this legislation. This is no way to legislate. The Government has denied what Members on this side were saying to the Minister of State last week. We were all outlining to the Minister of State the major flaw in the legislation. At the 11th hour, she is now saying to us that what we contend is not the case and that she will ensure such and such a thing happens. That is no way to deal with legislation. We asked for clarity but the Minister of State has not provided it.

The Minister of State is saying a person will not lose his or her position. If a person is seven years on a housing waiting list, will he or she be deemed to be seven years waiting for a transfer if he or she avails of the HAP? I refer to a system based on time on the list.

If so, that is the first time the Minister of State has clarified that point. Even if that is the case, it is not a lot of use to people because the Government has already instructed councils to give priority to homeless people. Therefore, the small few council houses that are available will be given to people who are homeless. Prioritised thereafter will be those with certain medical needs. Therefore, very few houses will go to anybody from the transfer list.

People have said repeatedly that what the Government is doing amounts to privatisation of the social housing programme, a washing of hands and an abdication of all responsibility for the provision of social housing. Even in the worst of times in this country, Governments had reasonable social housing building programmes because they recognised it as a fundamental responsibility to provide public housing of decent quality to the many people who were not in a position to provide housing for themselves. For the first time, it seems, the Government is changing this policy and effectively washing its hands of responsibility-----

I will build social houses as soon as I have the money.

Yes, but in small numbers. In the meantime, the Government is using this measure to remove up to 50,000 people from the housing waiting list. If that is not massaging figures, I do not know what is.

The other point is that the programme for Government-----

The Deputy supported the commitment in the programme for Government also.

I supported the commitment to develop a new housing support scheme to replace the rent supplement and remove the poverty traps. That scheme makes a lot of sense but nobody expected for a moment that, by introducing it, the Government would at the same time deem people to have their housing needs met, such that people would effectively lose their places on the housing waiting list. It should be a good and positive scheme to remove poverty traps and enable people in the private rented sector, with the support of the Government, to take up work and not lose rent support euro for euro. What should be a very good scheme, however, will turn out to be a very bad one for social policy reasons, but also a very unpopular one because people will not be prepared to give up their positions on a council housing list, having been waiting patiently for perhaps five to ten years. This is no substitute for council housing. As I stated, one of the biggest problems with this proposal is that a scheme that should have been positive and attractive to people will not be attractive to them because of the effect on their position on the housing waiting list.

The Minister of State made statements here tonight but they are worth nothing if they are not set down in legislation. What she said tonight is not in the Bill. She has not produced any statutory instruments to establish what she proposes to do.

Debate adjourned.